Sketch of the pro­posed New Syn­a­gogue, Shang­hai, 1937

Helmi’s Shad­ow traces the life of my moth­er, a state­less Russ­ian Jew named Hel­mi Koskin; Hel­mi was born in 1923 in Japan to her Russ­ian moth­er, Rachel Coop­er (my grand­moth­er), and a Finnish father, Edward Koskin. My grand­moth­er had been born in Odessa, locat­ed in the Pale of Set­tle­ment, but grew up in the north­ern Chi­nese city of Harbin, which had a sub­stan­tial pop­u­la­tion of Russ­ian Jews in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Helmi’s father died in Japan when she was very young, and Rachel returned to Chi­na around 1925; here she raised Hel­mi under dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in Shang­hai until 1939. At this point they both returned to Japan, where they remained through­out World War II. They man­aged to sur­vive bomb­ings by the Japan­ese in Shang­hai and by the Amer­i­cans in Japan. After the war end­ed, they found a way to come to the Unit­ed States, where they each final­ly attained cit­i­zen­ship for the first time in their lives. My moth­er mar­ried a man from Reno, Neva­da, named William Hor­gan and raised a fam­i­ly there. She and my grand­moth­er lived in Reno for the rest of their lives.

Grow­ing up in Reno, I heard sto­ries from both Hel­mi and Rachel about their ear­ly lives, so dis­tant from my own, but there was a great deal I didn’t under­stand. I inter­viewed my moth­er more exten­sive­ly late in her life and was able to put togeth­er more of the sto­ry, but still much was unclear. I like­wise tried to per­suade my grand­moth­er as she aged to divulge more of the past, with mixed suc­cess. It was only after both of their deaths that I under­took more rig­or­ous research to fill in the miss­ing infor­ma­tion. I tracked down rel­a­tives and friends who had known Hel­mi and Rachel in both Chi­na and Japan. I read exten­sive­ly about the Asian cities where they had lived – Harbin and Shang­hai, in Chi­na, and Kobe, in Japan – which har­bored com­mu­ni­ties of Jews from Rus­sia, as well as from var­i­ous Euro­pean coun­tries, dur­ing the decades of hor­ren­dous con­flict in the twen­ti­eth century.

Helmi’s Shad­ow is divid­ed into two halves. The first part traces the years from my grandmother’s birth in Odessa, her escape from anti­se­mit­ic Russ­ian pogroms with her fam­i­ly to Chi­na, the years of hard­ship in Shang­hai, and then the war years in Japan. The sec­ond part focus­es on the sub­se­quent decades in Amer­i­ca – told most­ly through my own eyes – as my broth­er and I grew up under the wings of these remark­able women. We per­ceived our moth­er as a wide­ly admired and exot­ic fig­ure in Reno with a mys­te­ri­ous past, and our grand­moth­er as both a trag­ic and com­i­cal lit­tle old Russ­ian lady. There was a great deal more to be learned about both of them.

Delv­ing into our fam­i­ly his­to­ries is far more than a mere aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise. Keep­ing such sto­ries alive is, I believe, a vital task as well as a deeply felt labor of love.

I made many won­der­ful dis­cov­er­ies that great­ly aid­ed and enhanced my research. A num­ber of his­to­ri­ans have, in recent decades, delved deeply into the his­to­ries of Jew­ish dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ties in Asia dur­ing the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry. Two excel­lent exam­ples are To The Harbin Sta­tion by David Wolff and Port of Last Resort: the Dias­po­ra Com­mu­ni­ties of Shang­hai by Mar­cia Reyn­ders Ris­taino. These books, and oth­ers, enabled me to more ful­ly under­stand how and why dis­placed peo­ple like my moth­er and grand­moth­er lived and sur­vived under such dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. I also came to under­stand much more clear­ly how dis­placed Jews of var­i­ous nation­al­i­ties in Rus­sia and East and South­east Asia man­aged to cre­ate their own tight com­mu­ni­ties and help pro­tect each oth­er dur­ing times of tremen­dous vio­lence and dan­ger. My book includes an exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy of oth­er use­ful sources.

I also made use of a num­ber of per­son­al mem­oirs by oth­er Jews who expe­ri­enced life in these places and fraught times. One of the most impor­tant such books, and most valu­able to me, is titled Some­how We’ll Sur­vive, by George Sid­line – a mem­oir of his time as a young Jew­ish boy in Kobe, Japan, dur­ing the har­row­ing years of World War II. As I began to read George’s book, sud­den­ly I came to a chap­ter where he began to talk about my own moth­er and grand­moth­er, who were close friends of his par­ents. From his mem­oir I learned a great deal about their per­son­al lives as well as many details about how they sur­vived the war years in Japan among a tiny group of oth­er Jew­ish fam­i­lies, with very lit­tle food and hav­ing to dodge the tremen­dous­ly destruc­tive Amer­i­can bomb­ings. I sub­se­quent­ly locat­ed George Sid­line and vis­it­ed him and his wife Simonne in their home, where they pro­vid­ed me with more infor­ma­tion and won­der­ful pho­tographs. Sad­ly George passed away recent­ly, and he will be great­ly missed.

Delv­ing into our fam­i­ly his­to­ries is far more than a mere aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise. Keep­ing such sto­ries alive is, I believe, a vital task as well as a deeply felt labor of love.

David Hor­gan is a writer and pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian. His book of short sto­ries titled The Gold­en West Trio Plus One received the Mer­ri­am-Fron­tier Award from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tana. His sto­ries and essays have appeared in a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing The New Mon­tana Sto­ry, The Best of the West, Port­land Review, Quar­ter­ly West, North­ern Lights, and The Cres­cent Review. Born and raised in Reno, Neva­da, he now lives in Mis­soula, Montana.